Jack Mercer

For King and Country, Again

“What did you do during the Second World War?” was a question Jack was often asked, but he was always very guarded in his response, revealing little about his work initially in the Intelligence Corps, and subsequently elsewhere as his linguistic skills in French and Russian saw him look after the welfare of groups of POW`s and other displaced nationals from Eastern Europe at an internment camp in Northern Ireland. 


“Ah, I just did a bit of work in intelligence,” was Jack’s standard response before deftly and politely changing the subject, usually back to cricket! But his county colleagues were in no doubt that he played more than just a minor role, as he was such an intelligent and capable fellow. Dennis Brookes, of Northamptonshire, remembers how Jack could regularly complete ‘The Times’ crossword in less than five minutes, whilst others fondly recalled how he could hold his own in conversations on almost every subject, especially when socialising after hours and meeting new folk. On many occasions, he had proudly told his Glamorgan colleagues – and anyone else who would listen – that he was probably the only Russian-speaking professional in cricket history. It was these linguistic skills which were soon put to good use as, apparently, he spent time in the early years of the Second World War at Bletchley Park, assisting the hard-pressed staff as they translated, and sent, coded messages to colleagues in Eastern Europe. 


He was subsequently transferred to an Army intelligence base near Coventry, but like a lot of Jack’s wartime activities, his time there is still shrouded in mystery, and is likely to do so until the future declassification of military records. What is known for certain is that during 1942 and 1943 Jack found time to play cricket, appearing for various Army teams and other scratch elevens in fund-raising and morale-boosting matches designed to help the War Effort. With Maurice Turnbull serving on the Army’s cricket committee, and other eminent players such as Gubby Allen and Brian Sellers also involved, Jack was pleased to accept their offer to appear in some of the friendly matches. 


His first appearance came in early June 1942 when he appeared for the Army in their matches against both Cambridge and Oxford University. The first was at Fenner’s and the latter at Lord’s – one of several old haunts that Jack was pleased to visit later in the summer, including Hove and Headingley as he appeared for the Army against Sussex and against a Northern England side raised by Sellers. In the match at Hove, he also got a chance to open the bowling with Alf Gover, before his good friend Maurice Tate came on as first change. He was pleased to see so many of his old colleagues and after his long hours of intelligence work and carefully translating messages, it must have been a sheer delight to meet up with, and to play with, so many of his friends from the county circuit. Indeed, the post-match chats often went on so long into the night that Jack had to use all of his diplomatic skills to explain to his military bosses his later than expected return to the Army base! 


These get-together’s of the county professionals under the auspices of The Army and other Service organisations led to the players themselves organising further matches to raise cash for the War Effort. Indeed, when asked by Tate in the match at Hove in June if he would like to play the following month in a game at Bognor Regis for his side, Jack jumped at the chance and duly turned out on July 22nd against an eleven led by Gover. In several of the matches, he either played with, or against, some of his Glamorgan colleagues, such as Viv Jenkins who was in the Anti-Aircraft XI that an Army side met at Chelmsfordfor a two-day encounter in July 1942. 


Besides re-appearing at some of the top county and Test Match venues, these games gave Jack a chance to play at a number of decent club grounds, including Aigburth, Aldershotand Epsom as well as at school grounds such as Tonbridge. The matches themselves were quite light-hearted and for a while, at least, allowed Jack to forget about the horrors of War in the company of many of his old pals. Although the contests were fairly relaxed, Jack gave a few reminders of his talents with bat and ball, taking 3/8 in a fiery opening spell for a Coventry and District XI against a British Empire XI, raised and organised by his old Glamorgan colleague Bob Haines. In mid-August he also unfurled a beauty to bowl Frank Lee first ball in front of a crowd of 9,000 at Lord’s whilst playing for the Army against the Civil Defence Services, and then the following July when playing for the Army against Brian Sellars’ XI at Headingley, Jack hit a massive on-driven six to win the game for his side in the last five minutes as they successfully chased a target of 202 in the one-day contest. 


But it proved to be an all-too-brief return to sporting activity as his cricketing activities were abruptly curtailed in 1943 following his appointment as the commandant of a camp in Ulster dealing with Russian refugees and other POW’s, so for the final three years of the War, Frank put his excellent command of Russian to good use at the camp, to the south-west of Belfast, which dealt with the refugees and other displaced Russian-speakers who were being held at the internment camps. 


His new role meant that he has less leave time, whilst being across the Irish Seameant it wasn’t so easy for him to accept an invitation to appear in an Army side or a scratch eleven raised by some of his old pals for an exhibition match. In 1943 he had just a fortnight’s break and during that time, besides visiting friends and family, he managed to play for the Army at Headingley and also for Glamorgan, who largely through the initiative of Johnnie Clay had arranged themselves five one-day matches at the Arms Park and Barry Island to raise funds for various military organisations and hospitals in the area. Jack was delighted to accept the offer to play an Army XI at the Cardiff ground on August 2nd, and he duly appeared alongside several of his former colleagues, including George Lavis – who scored a fine century - Dai Davies, Cyril Smart and Clay himself. Indeed, for the decent-sized crowd at the Arms Park it must have felt like the late 1930s all over again as Jack and George Lavis took the new ball, with Jack extracting lift and swing to claim the wickets of Harry Halliday and Tom Pearce, before Clay took 3/8 to polish off the tail as Glamorgan won by 129 runs. 


When home on leave in July 1944 Jack got the chance to play in a match at Priory Park in Chichester for an eleven raised by New Zealander Stewie Dempster against a Sussex XI, which included Jimmy Parks, the Langridge brothers and Ronnie Boon, Jack’s former Glamorgan colleague from the early 1930s who was now a physical training instructor at one of the Army camps on the South Coast. It was though his only cricketing activity of note that summer as the steady influx of refugees and other displaced nationals and servicemen from Eastern Europeat the Belfastcamp meant he spent much of his time in Northern Ireland. 


Tragically, a month after playing in the exhibition match at the compact Chichester ground, Jack heard the awful news that Maurice Turnbull had been killed in Northern France. The Glamorgan captain – as a Major in the Welsh Guards – had been on the frontline during the summer of 1944 landing at Arromanches in Normandy a week or so after D-Day. As always, he fearlessly led from the front and during their advance into Northern France, Turnbull led several raids on Nazi troops as the Allied Forces moved forward. However, in one of these sorties near the small town of Montchamp, Maurice was to pay the highest price for his bravery, as he was shot through the head and killed instantly as he bravely launched a counter-attack against an advancing column of Panzer tanks. 


The following summer a series of special matches were arranged at various grounds in South Wales as part of the Maurice Turnbull Memorial Fund, with Jack – like many other of the Club’s stalwarts – turning out in the exhibition matches as they collectively remembered the man who had done so much for the Club during the 1930s. Despite his leave being at a premium, Jack had no hesitation in accepting an offer to play at Swanseain the two-day friendly in the first week of August for a Glamorgan team led by Johnnie Clay against an Army side. 


Given the circumstances, it was a highly emotional time for Jack to see Arnold Dyson, Emrys Davies, Trevil Morgan, Haydn Davies and several of his other former colleagues who had all benefited from playing under Turnbull’s fine leadership in the 1930s, and in the course of the two days - and for much of each long night – the Glamorgan players shared a myriad of tales about their happy days under their gallant captain. A few tears were no doubt shared in the St. Helen’s pavilion and the pubs adjacent to the ground, but overall it was quite a cathartic experience for Jack – at a ground which held such good memories for him – as he was also able to briefly dwell again on his good fortune some thirty years before on the Somme and how, unlike the Glamorgan captain, he had been able to return home and continue his life in cricket.


Andrew Hignell